Goddess of Agriculture
Photo: Museo nazionale romano di palazzo Altemps, CC BY 2.5 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5>, via Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Demeter_Altemps_Inv8546.jpg
Demeter, Goddess of Agriculture
Roman Name: Ceres
Goddess of: Agriculture (farming), harvest, fertility and sacred law
Parents: Kronos and Rhea
Symbols: Sheaves of wheat, a cornucopia (or the horn of plenty – a horn full of food), flaming torches, poppies and her golden hair.
Location of Story: The Eleusinion temple, at the entrance to the Acropolis
Delphi watched the rain gently plop into the delicate petals of the flowers. It made them dance beneath the statue of the goddess. It was only then did she realise she could hear somebody crying.
“Um… is someone there?” Delphi tried. The sobbing seemed to get louder. Delphi looked up to the face of the statue. Rain was running down her cheeks.
“Is… that…?” Delphi started.
“Child… leave me…” The voice was a whisper, heavy with feeling yet soft as the wind on leaves. Delphi took a step closer awkwardly.
“Don’t cry!” Delphi blurted out. “I mean… you can cry, but… why are you crying?” The statue looked down at her.
“I miss my daughter. She was taken from me.”
Delphi nodded and then realised she had no idea what to say. “Sorry,” she tried. It was usually a good bet.
She looked down and to her horror realised the flowers were withering at the statue’s feet, the petals shrivelling, the leaves drying out in a heartbeat and falling into the mud. And it was spreading. Already the trees around them were starting to turn, yellow, then red, then brown.
“Wait, what are you doing?” Delphi asked, looking back to the goddess in horror. “You’re sucking the life out of everything with your crying!”
The statue shook her head and waved her hand as if to dismiss her.
“What is life next to the life of my daughter?”
“What? Pretty important I’d say!” Delphi snapped back. “You can’t let things die just because you’re sad!”
The goddess let out another sob.
“Without Persephone, what life is left in the world?”
Delphi shook her head and, quite sensibly, decided to leave her alone before she made things worse.
Goddess of plenty
Demeter was an important goddess for the Greeks as she was responsible for making the crops grow. She was the beautiful goddess of the harvest, with her flowing hair as golden as the corn, and was always honoured at any events involving food! Although she features in fewer stories than many of her brothers and sisters, she was one of the most honoured gods in ancient Greece. However, unlike her better known siblings, Demeter was often represented as being very miserable – and her most famous story explains why.
Demeter preferred to live away from other gods on Mount Olympus, and she raised her daughter Persephone in beautiful fields of flowers and corn. Her daughter, like her, was beautiful and loved nature, and delighted in spending her time in the fields and meadows. However, another had also taken a fancy to her: the king of the Underworld, Hades. One day, when Persephone was out of sight of her mother, Hades rode his chariot up through a crack in the earth, and dragged Persephone down to his realm, to become his Queen.
Demeter was heartbroken when she realised Persephone was missing. She asked the gods at Olympus if they knew where she had gone, but no-one seemed to know. Demeter wandered the Earth as a mortal woman for a time, lost in grief, forever searching for her missing daughter. She abandoned all her usual godly responsibilities – the crops stopped growing, the plants and flowers died, and soon a terrible famine spread across the land. During this time she was said to have come to the temple at Eleusis, in disguise as an old woman, where she stayed for a time. When she revealed her true identity, a huge temple was built for her. This became a central religious site for the Greeks, where a special cult was established to share Demeter’s secrets about life.
The famine caused by Demeter’s grief became so bad that it even started to disturb the gods on Olympus. Zeus demanded if anyone knew where Persephone had gone. It was Helios, the titan god of the sun, who finally told Zeus who had taken Demeter’s daughter – as of course, the Sun sees everything that happens during the day. Fed up with the moaning of the starving mortal men, Zeus travelled down to Hades to demand the return of Persephone. At first Hades, refused. Why should he give up his Queen, just because his younger brother demanded it? Only when Zeus threatened that no more dead souls would come to his domain, did Hades agree to let her go.
On the evening before Persephone’s release, Hades offered her a bowl of pomegranate seeds to eat before she departed. Some stories have it that she ate four, others say six. When Hermes arrived to transport Persephone back to the land of the living, Hades claimed that as she had eaten food from the land of the dead, she was bound to return for a part of each year – some stories say four months, others say six.
Death and rebirth
Finally, Persephone and Demeter were reunited, and their joy was such that all the crops, plants and flowers burst back into life. Their joy was short lived however. After a time, Persephone would return to the Underworld, and Demeter would once again mourn her lost daughter, once again causing all the crops and plants to shed their leaves and die – only to return to life when Persephone returned to her mother once more. In this way, the Greeks explained the changing of the seasons. Persephone’s disappearance from the world heralded the start of winter as Demeter grieved her loss, and her return brought the beginning of Spring as they were reunited once more.